State Ethics Commission Holds First Public Meeting

Dec 20, 2011

The first public meeting of the state’s new ethics commission came on the day that another State Senator pleaded guilty to felony corruption charges. Questions were raised about the closed door portion of the commission’s meeting.

Shortly after noon, The Chair of the Joint Commission on Public Ethics, Janet DiFiore, called the meeting to order.

“We have a tremendous amount of work ahead of us,” DiFiore told the assembled commissioners.

DiFiore, who is also the Westchester County District Attorney, announced that a search committee will begin looking for a new executive director. Ethics oversight has been dormant in the state since Governor Cuomo signed a bill in August that creates the new panel, known as JCOPE.    The old Commission on Public Integrity remained in a state of limbo until December 12th, when the governor and legislative leaders announced their appointees to the new commission. A private telephone meeting was held by commissioners December 15th, and the first open meeting occurred four days later.   

After outlining basic procedures and discussing possible future meeting times, DiFiore moved to close the meeting to the public and the media, and go into executive session.

That prompted a formal request by the Associated Press for a reason for the closed session.

The ethics commission is not subject to the state’s open meetings laws, but DiFiore says she is trying to comply with those rules anyway.

“We should endeavor do as much of our work in open view,” said DiFiore, but she said the matters to be discussed required “confidentiality”.

DiFiore did not state a specific reason for closing the meeting to the public.

Assembly Speaker Sheldon Silver’s appointee on the commission, Pat Bulgaro, also questioned the need for secrecy. DiFiore guided by former commission executive director Barry Ginsberg, told Bulgaro the session should be closed. Ginsberg, though technically not on the new commission, he resigned his post, was permitted to stay.

Outside David Grandeau, a former state ethics oversight official, and now a blogger, said he thinks the closed door session was a “not a good way to start”  the commission, calling the public portion of the meeting a “dog and pony show”.

Grandeau ran the respected former State Commission on Lobbying.  He says there are sometimes “valid reasons” for going into executive session, but he says often,  commissions abuse the privilege because they do not want to discuss something uncomfortable or potentially embarrassing in public .

The ethics commission’s first meeting comes on the same day that State Senator Carl Kruger pleaded guilty in federal court in Brooklyn to felony charges, for accepting more than a million dollars in bribes to maintain what prosecutors called a lavish lifestyle, including a large house owned by a former mafia boss and a Bentley automobile.

Kruger, the former Senate Finance Committee Chair, also resigned from his Senate seat.  He joins several other state lawmakers who have been indicted, convicted, or jailed on various charges.

Grandeau says despite the rampant corruption, all of the cases against lawmakers in recent years have stemmed from federal prosecutions, not state ethics authorities.

“There’s something wrong when you have to wait for the feds to come in and do that kind of work,” Grandeau said.

The ethics commission will meet again in mid January.